Glossary of terms

Some of the terms that museums - including the Horniman - use, may not be easy to decipher. Use this glossary to help navigate collections online,

We have tried to include all the terms and their background in this glossary, but if any term is missing that you would like to add to this page, get in touch via

These terms are also common across many other museums, galleries, libraries and archives, although not universal.

Museums give each object in their collection a unique number which they use to identify it from other similar objects in the collection. No two objects in a museum collection will have the same number. This number is often written directly onto the object, or attached by a label.

It is common to have several different systems for numbering objects used over the years by the same museum, which is why accession numbers don’t always follow the same format. Most accession number formats include the year that an object entered the museum.

For example: 26.40i-ii (a pair of beaded earrings at the Horniman Museum), was donated to the museum in 1926.

Accession numbers are important because of the large quantity of objects in museum collections. They enable museums to record a lot of information about an object, and to make sure that this information can always be connected to it.

This includes things like where the object is located and what condition it is in, what it’s made from, and what stories are connected to it.

Each object in a museum collection will have an object name – a term that briefly describes what it is (or what the museum thinks it is). Examples are ‘neck ornament’, ‘basket’, ‘figure’, ‘doll’ or ‘spear.’

These names are often the first piece of information recorded about an object, and what you see online or in a database is likely to come directly from the museum’s catalogue of objects.

It is important to recognise that the names given to objects are often wrong. This is both a reflection of the fact that museums contain a lot of objects that they misunderstand, as well as the fact that museum professionals have historically categorised objects in relation to the sorts of objects they are most familiar with.

Increasingly, museums are trying to record the object names used by community members to identify their objects.

This could be a town, region, city, country, continent or a mix of all of these. The pace could include several different places, if the object is made up of elements from different places.

Contained in this field often refers to the place that an object is thought to have come from. Information under Place is often vague, from the continental (for example ‘Africa’), to the regional (‘Africa, East Africa, Kenya, Nyanza’). Rarely does it contain specific information relating to the name of a marketplace, town or village.

It is also important to remember that an object can travel through many different places before it is collected.

A term used by museums, and it relates to their conception as places that collect and archive scientific specimens.

The word is not an indication of the way in which an object was acquired, whether purchased, exchanged, gifted, or taken by force.

These are the height, width and depth of an object, usually in millimetres.

You will find that most objects have a list of materials attached to them, such as ‘glass’, ‘vegetable fibre’, ‘shell’, ‘beads’ or ‘metal’.

This refers to the materials identified by people working in the museum that have been used to make the object, and does not mean that these are the only materials used to make the object.

They are often unspecific, for example ‘metal’ instead of ‘iron’, ‘vegetal fibre’ instead of ‘coconut fibre’, or ‘shell’ instead of ‘cowrie’.

Most objects will have a description. This might be a short sentence or a longer paragraph.

In the past, descriptions were used to help Horniman staff identify objects, and so you will find that they often describe physical features, such as shape, materials, colour, or decoration.

Sometimes you can find information in the description that provides information about how an object is made, or what is feels like to touch or smell, that you can’t see in a photograph.

The description field can also contain further information about what the Horniman thinks the object is, how it is used, or what its significance is for the community it was collected from. This might be information gathered when the object entered the Museum collection, as a result of community consultation, or through research.

It is not always correct; objects can mean many different things to different people, and research is not always conclusive.

Some objects on the Horniman’s website also have a use field that contains information specifically about how an object is used.

Like description, this might be information gathered when the object entered the Museum collection, as a result of community consultation, or through research. It is not always correct; objects can mean many different things to different people, and research is not always conclusive.

This field tells you which group or groups have been associated with an object by the Horniman. Information in this category is contentious because it is more likely to reflect a colonial understanding of groups rather, than the group that the person who made the object – or the person or community who used it – would have described themselves by.

It might also reflect the way in which curators have historically associated particular cultures of making with particular groups. This has often failed to recognise that cultures can overlap different peoples, or a group of people may be made up of several cultures.

It may also fail to recognise that cultural groups are dynamic, and the exchange of objects or sharing of styles between groups.

The information in this field is often wrong. It can contain terminology that is incorrect, offensive, or inappropriate.

It is also unlikely to reflect the breadth of ethnic groups in Africa and the Caribbean, prioritising larger groups that colonial officials and Museum curators have been more familiar with.

Information about collectors is contained in the ‘Collector’ field and sometimes a person record, at the Horniman, although this can also refer to the individual or organisation that passed the object directly to the Museum through donation or sale.

Collector is commonly used in museum records to refer to an individual or organisation who sought ownership over an object, with the intention of bringing it together with a number of other objects to form a group (a collection).

Ownership from the perspective of a collector may have been achieved through a number of different channels, including but not limited to purchasing, gifting, exchange, confiscation and looting.

The ways that museums have historically used this term is contested, since an object is likely to have passed through many different hands before it entered a collection. Rarely are the names of community members, who may have played a role in collecting, recorded. However, it can also be useful information that can lead to a better understanding of the context in which an object was acquired.

Refers to person or organisation who donated an object directly to a museum, free of charge.

Donors are often related to field collectors or former owners of an object, and seek to deposit their inherited collection in a museum. It remains a common way in which museums acquire new objects and means that they may continue to acquire objects that were collected during the colonial-era today.

However, donors may themselves have acquired the donated object through different ways, including but not limited to purchasing, gifting, exchange, confiscation and looting.